Rules for Photographing Children

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Interested in making work of children? Here are some core themes to consider: value, collaboration, choice and reciprocity. Since my work is exclusively of children I’ve seen up close how averse human nature is to unpaid labor (rightly so!) In some cases photography is inherently exploitive as in the case of the street genre: I access my subject without permission or payment in order to achieve my end. Because there is a social contract that what is public is generally open (generally), payment isn’t expected or required. Yet in the case of a portrait, the person’s likeness, time and willingness to participate becomes valuable. If they are being asked to perform work, they should be awarded with the symbol of acknowledgement for that value — payment in one form or another.

Bribery or reward are often used with children as a substitute for payment of work. Work assumes they have the capacity to both participate and add unique value.

In the genre of family photography, the client pays the photographer. This rightly morphs the maker from artist to business. They must deliver the product as the client understands it to be promised. Creators in this genre almost universally bemoan the compromise of their autonomy and/or integrity in these conditions. They want to make art, but the direction of currency ensures that their focus (again, rightly) is to provide a service. If we reverse the direction of that currency from artist to subject, artists often discover a newfound malleability and willingness in their portrait sitters (even down to toddler age) as well as an increase in personal courage. This is distinct from bribery or reward which are often used with children as a substitute for payment of work. Work assumes they have the capacity to both participate and add unique value.

Collaboration, Reciprocity & Choice

I’ve heard mothers who photograph their children wonder how they can get them to cooperate, especially in their expression. One solution is to be hands off and capture them as a fly on the wall (this is the approach I use to document my family). But if you desire to make works of great beauty that express themes you have in mind (ie. art) one solution is to creatively collaborate. Why are they souring when you point their lens at them? Have they been prepared? Explain your vision with specificity. Sit down at eye-level with them and explain the emotions that interest you. Purchase them an inexpensive (or not) digital or polaroid camera to join your project. Create a container — a photo book of the works or a set of prints that they sign. There must be reciprocity in the subject/photographer working relationship; it is often overlooked that this includes children.

Two close adults have reciprocity automatically being social equals. When my husband takes out his camera to photograph me I’m flattered and I understand it as an act of love. It’s “for him” but also for us, and his seeing me is a delight. Our children don’t always respond this way (depends on the child). They sense your attention dividing; mom is now doing her thing. Is there another way to approach being behind the lens that invites them in? Let them touch your camera. Give them a choice. Explain with words and then explain again. If you’re asking them to do certain actions for you, pay in currency that is valuable to them: cash, treats, dates, release of chores, etc. Give a reward for 1 roll of film or one shoot; a reward for every photo is gratuitous. Don’t interrupt them in order to make a photograph even though they are in great light, or be understanding of frustration if you do. Give them the same courtesy as you would an adult. Don’t expect them to work for you if they’re not being paid.

Consent, Vision & Tangible Thanks

When I ask to photograph a friend’s child, I offer to pay them in a family photography session. This has great value for families! I explain my vision to both parents in detailed words, asking for explicit consent to make art, not documentary, showing examples. I explain that I’m looking to use the symbol of childhood to express universal themes. All images will be cleared by them and any image they’d like to keep private is 100% their choice. Because my art is not transgressive I’ve never had anyone ask for a photo to remain unseen. But I enlist them in my vision; I tell them we will be doing something beautiful. I explain how I believe that art is redemptive.

If I do a project with a child not my own, I try to make prints for them of the photos in a short timeframe as a thank you. I say, “Look what we made together!” and things like, “Remember when you laid in the grass? I had you close your eyes because that made me think about dreaming. I like this one.” I want them to feel that they created — I want them to be pleased. During the shoot I ask if they would like to take any specific pictures and if they do, I print those. I say, “Let’s do some shots of your favorite things! Show me where they are!” Seeing what they love helps form the artist-subject bond that creates comfort in front of your lens.

Saying Yes, Releasing the Outcome & Leading by Example

Now for some tips and tricks after you’ve addressed basic components such as value, payment, inclusion, consent and reciprocity. There are more! This is a primer. Here are some ways to get children to embody your aims outside of using words. Have them run from far away into your frame. Play freeze dance. Play Simon Says: jump, twirl, sit, fly, swim. Ask them to enact feelings: “What would your face look like if you saw a shooting star? What would your face look like if your tummy hurt?” Experiment. Use the question as a dialectical tool. Take copious breaks! Make sure they’re fed well throughout. Have them photograph you to balance power and emphasize your trust in their maturity. See how fast they can do something you want them to do. Do a speed round of moods: happy, sad, mad, surprised, screaming, silly, laughing! Click away. Bring extra film. Invest. Make a conscious effort to reduce your anxiety about waste — wasting film, time, opportunities. Working with kids is hit and miss, with more miss. Release the outcome.

Lead by example — you must show in your words and demeanor, “we are doing something worthwhile. Art is very meaningful!” Becoming a clown is not the only option, though it can work. I stay away from it. Play music. A great album is called A Celebration of the Seasons: Goodnight Songs. Emphasize action: “Can you climb to the top of the playhouse?” Bring examples: “Here’s a facial expression I really like! She looks hopeful. Can you make that face?” Encourage, praise, high-five, and say YES. If they ask you to photograph something, the asking shows trust forming. It shows that they believe they are a collaborator, which they should. Don’t pretend; actually press the shutter on their ideas. Affirm their taste. Allow the dominant child to dominate for 5 minute spurts, completely letting go of the wheel. Give the shy child reassurance that you’re pleased and they are doing a great job. Allow the physical child to go berzerk. Allow the cat-lover to pet the cat until she’s done. Smile often. Don’t just pay — pay well!

Expectations, Choice and the Nature of Things

Children are my favorite subject. I created @childhoodonfilm to showcase and collect images that speak to my heart. When I photograph my children on film for a project, they know what to expect. We are making art together; we are accomplices. They have a say. When I’m just snapping pics on my iPhone or SLR the same rules don’t exactly apply because they need not apply. They know I’m just being their mom and nothing is required from them. But I still ask permission. In our home they always have a choice even if it breaks my heart. I have overridden their desires in the past and regretted it.

These are the digital cameras my girls (ages 3 and 5) have and love. They are a little hokey but take surprisingly crisp images! Beware of obnoxious chirping sound in lieu of actual shutter. Both of my daughters use the Instax Mini often, which is a tool that teaches both restraint and gratification. Photography is transactional by nature; there is taking. Make space for subjects to willingly give. Know the nature of the things with which you’re dancing: photography itself, human nature and children’s wondrous, powerful wills. Good luck!